Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Paul Nash: Landscape from a Dream

Paul Nash, Landscape from a Dream, 1936, Tate
The Nashes hoped to live permanently in Dorset, but medical opinion insisted that the climate of the Isle of Purbeck was bad for Paul’s health, and in 1936 they finally bought a house in Eldon Grove, Hampstead.

‘Although the furniture is in, the house is not yet habitable,’ Nash reported in the autumn. ‘The distracted painters and carpenters are still working doggedly on, and the blasted electricians pull up the floors under our very feet.’

In July he had participated in the International Surrealist Exhibition at the Burlington Galleries in London, and now had two of the movement’s main British protagonists – Herbert Read and Roger Penrose – for neighbours. Eileen Agar’s work was also included, and she appeared herself in a photograph of the exhibitors alongside Salvador Dali, Read, Penrose, Paul Eluard and others, but not Nash. Coincidentally or not, his romance with Agar ended in July 1936, a break made more painful when she began a new affair with Eluard.

‘We break at the peak of our flight,’ Nash wrote to her, ‘Where we had climbed like two birds who make love in mid-air heedless of where they soar.’

Birds had always fascinated Nash, perhaps because he had experienced vivid dreams of flight as a child; in his work birds often make an appearance without taking centre stage, as the peregrine falcon - recognisable from its distinctive grey back and long, crossed-over wings – does here.

The peregrine is at home on this Dorset clifftop, with the dark, fossil-rich beach of Kimmeridge below. Nesting in a simple scrape, these birds hunt pigeons and other cliff-dwelling species, diving at speeds of up to 200mph and snatching prey from mid-air. Falconers have exploited their predatory talents for at least 3000 years but the peregrine has an equally ancient symbolic importance best personified by the falcon-headed Egyptian god Horus. Associated with the rising and setting of the sun, Horus is often shown with the moon as one eye and the sun for the other, suggesting the union of opposites: night and day, sunset and sunrise.

Not to say that Nash’s falcon necessarily refers to Horus, nor that the second falcon flying away into the sunset represents Eileen Agar. These are possible interpretations or sources of inspiration, no more. Nash constantly sought and borrowed ideas and images, from other artists, philosophers, historians and poets. He tended to scan books, pouncing on the phrase or theme that he was looking for. Perhaps he had hunted in this way through Ash Wednesday (1930), in which TS Eliot asks, ‘Why should the aged eagle spread its wings?’

Debilitated by asthma, Nash could have made this a sombre painting, but instead it is radiant, as his very last paintings would be. One can imagine the artist in his Hampstead home, with its mirrors and screens, dreaming of the Purbeck cliffs and remembered pleasures.

This is an excerpt from 'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream' (Mainstone Press, 2011). I posted it because I'm giving a talk on Nash next week to the Somerset Art Gallery Trust. Info over here -->>

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Help the Fry Art Gallery buy its Building!

Eric Ravilious, Two Women in a Garden, 1932
The Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden is one of my favourite art museums, being small, mildly eccentric and full of work by artists I like. Visiting from Bristol poses a logistical challenge or two, but it's always worth the effort. I was there for the launch of the 'Ravilious in Essex' show a few years ago, and what an entertaining day that turned out to be. On those occasions you can be sure to meet some interesting people and hear a tale or two.

Anyway, the Fry has been going sicne 1985 and now its custodians have the opportunity to buy the lease - correction, freehold! - of the building, which was built in the mid-19th century to house the art collection of Quaker businessman Francis Gibson - it still seems like a private gallery, but one to which we're all invited. Success in its fundraising mission would mean that the Fry's valuable role as first port of call for students and admirers of the Great Bardfield artists is assured for posterity.

In case you're wondering who the aforementioned artists are, they include Eric and Tirzah Ravilious (or Tirzah Garwood), Edward Bawden, John Aldridge, Kenneth Rowntree and the Cheeses, Bernard and daughter Chloe. For a full list, why not have a look at the Fry's website? You will also notice, tucked away at the bottom of the Home Page - how typical of the gallery to ask for money so discreetly - a mydonate button.

And you have until October 25th to visit the Fry's 30th anniversary exhibition, which features work by numerous artists with a Bardfield connection, from Rav and Bawden to Grayson Perry. Have a look and see what Martin Gayford thought of the show...

Monday, 21 September 2015

An Unsettling Vision: Kate Gottgens

Kate Gottgens, Harlequin Mother (2010)
Painting seems to be back in vogue these days, to judge from the range of new books devoted to the subject. I tend to struggle with the writing in books about contemporary art, which can sometimes seem deliberately opaque, but the reproductions in books like 'Painting Today' (Phaidon) and 'A Brush with the Real' (Elephant Books) are impressive. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that these books take a global view of the subject. It's both inspiring and rather bewildering to think of so many artists beavering away all round the world.

Red Interior (2012)
A couple of months ago I was flicking through '100 Painters of Tomorrow' (Thames and Hudson) when I was struck by a painting of a 1960s interior. In mood it reminded me a little of Eric Fischl's 'Bad Boy', only there were no people in this picture. Backlit by wide windows, the room was both real and insubstantial, a setting for a dream.

Kate Gottgens, On the Ferry (2015)
The artist, I learnt, was Kate Gottgens, a South African painter born in the mid-1960s. You can see her work online, or in a new book published by her Cape Town gallery, SMAC, or in person next month at another acronymically named gallery, NUNC, in Antwerp.

Something about her paintings appeals to me strongly, but I'm not sure what it is. There are certainly echoes of modern painters I admire, from Gerhard Richter to Peter Doig; like them she works from photographs, and like them uses this material to create distinctive paintings. In her case the found photos tend to depict the family lives of white middle class South Africans, while the paintings suggest an alternative reality - beautiful sometimes, but unsettling, even nightmarish.

Kate Gottgens, Wilderness (2014)
In a commentary accompanying paintings in her book, Alexandra Dodd writes:

It is written on the photograph - 'Wilderness'. She takes it both literally and figuratively. It is a small black and white image from the early 20th century of two female figures on a boat. As she paints, the foliage morphs into lurking phantasmal shapes. The rumour of a face emerges from the shadowy bulrushes. The vegetation takes on the feel of a headdress or a mask...

Rowing, Kate Gottgens (2015)
Sometimes the original image in the photo is still recognisable, but on other occasions figures almost disappear, while areas of negative space or minor details are emphasized. Faces become obscured, vehicles melt. There's a mushroom cloud in one painting, which makes me wonder whether Kate grew up having nightmares of nuclear holocaust like I did. I don't know the answer to this, nor have I managed to glean much about her, apart from the fact that she has a family. Her book and website are refreshingly free of artist statements and biographical blither.

Kate Gottgens, Milk Teeth (2015)
Kate Gottgens' solo exhibition, The Rising Sea, is at NUNC Contemporary, Antwerp, from 1st October. You can see more of her work here.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Drawing & Memory: Fay Ballard

Flipper, 2012 (copyright Fay Ballard)

The more complicated and technical the production of art becomes, the more I admire drawing. One of my personal highlights of the Ravilious exhibition was his drawing of sunflowers, while earlier in the year I much enjoyed the RWA/Ingram Collection exhibition 'Drawing On', which offered work in contrasting styles by Elisabeth Frink, Edward Burra and many others.

A new discovery for me is Fay Ballard, who made a name for herself a decade ago creating beautifully observed botanical illustrations, before finding inspiration for a sequence of drawings that she exhibited in her 2014 exhibition 'House Clearance'. With a few exceptions each of these depicts an object in isolation - an old glove, say, or a blanket, or a chess set. These everyday things, none of any financial worth and most fairly battered-looking, have been drawn tenderly, some from life and others from memory.

Dead Bird, 2012 (copyright Fay Ballard)

So unpretentious are the drawings that, leafing through the equally modest catalogue accompanying the exhibition, it takes a few minutes to notice how odd some of them are. Among the objects drawn from life is a creased receipt dated 5.5.67 from the Metropolitan Police, for 'Restoration of dog'. A dead bird is among those drawn from memory. We are looking at two different sets of images, one a record of things encountered during a house clearance and the other memories made manifest, but there is much else going on besides.

You might have guessed by now that Fay Ballard is the daughter of JG Ballard, novelist and cult hero. I was introduced to his work via the wonderful mobile library that brought civilisation to remote corners of Lincolnshire in the early 1980s, and via my mother, who picked out 'The Unlimited Dream Company' as a book she thought I might like. So I was introduced to the mythic suburb of Shepperton (a place I will probably never visit for the same reason I can never watch film versions of favourite novels), little knowing that its most imaginative inhabitant was also a father of three.

Car in Desert Photograph, 2012 (copyright Fay Ballard)

Subsequently I learned more about JG Ballard's life, from his childhood in Shanghai - where, coincidentally, my mother was born - to his early career as a writer of speculative fiction. He married in the mid-1950s but lost his wife Mary to a sudden illness in 1964, and thereafter raised their three young children himself, while writing a series of extraordinary and often disturbing books, and drinking heavily.

I was quite a Ballard obsessive for a few years, but all that was in the distant past when I came across a notice for 'House Clearance'. The exhibition had already been and gone, but I was directed to Fay's website, where the haunting clarity of the drawings instantly caught my attention. In an accompanying essay the artist described how, in 2008, she returned with her father to her childhood home, a place she hadn't seen for fifteen years as they invariably met elsewhere.

Opening the door with the key I'd kept all those years, the home had not changed since my childhood, the holiday flipper was holding the nursery door open, the dried lemon was sitting on the nursery mantelpiece, the plastic flower ornament was lying on my old bedroom window sill and our family hairbrush, still full of strands, was there on the bathroom ledge. Time had stopped still.

Memory Box: About My Father (copyright Fay Ballard)

A year later JG Ballard died and, while writers around the world expressed their admiration for his achievements, Fay returned to the house, feeling the past in rooms and on the staircase bannister, and most potently in objects. The flipper, so incongruous as a subject for a drawing, prompted a vivid recollection.

Yes, I remember how my brother swam across the bay in Rosas wearing that flipper as my father and I looked on from our apartment balcony at the tiny dot moving across the horizon terrified he'd be swept away by the currents. 

Of her mother, Fay tells us, her father had barely spoken after her death (when Fay herself was seven). There were no photographs on display. Now, going through her father's things, she began to find clues: a powder compact, and then a collection of tiny black and white photographs. For two of these her parents took turns to pose in front of a statue of a sphinx, in Chiswick House Gardens, proudly holding their first-born. This was in 1957, and the baby was her.

Omen (i), 2012 (copyright Fay Ballard)

Omen (ii), 2012 (copyright Fay Ballard)

Drawings of these photos were included in the exhibition, along with those of objects real and remembered. For Fay this was a profound personal experience. As she put it:

The drawings of my mother make concrete her presence. The process of drawing and making marks on to paper brings her back, and makes her real. 

But these drawings work on other levels too. In a way no literary biographer could emulate we see JG Ballard simultaneously as celebrated avant garde writer and as a girl's father, a man who used a carpet sweeper and taught the family origami, but who also drank whisky after breakfast and read 'Crash Injuries' by Jacob Kulowski on an orange corduroy sofa. Good artists make you see the world differently, and these drawings have done that for me.

For more information on Fay Ballard and her work, please visit her website

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Reflections on Ravilious at Dulwich

Ship's Screw on a Railway Truck, 1940 (Ashmolean)
Now that the Ravilious show is nearly over, I wanted to say thankyou to everyone who made the minor trek to Dulwich this summer.** Do go and see their MC Escher exhibition, which is coming up next - it should make a fascinating follow-up to Ravilious.

I still can't quite believe people have been queuing up for Rav, but perhaps I'm looking at this the wrong way round. Perhaps we should be marveling that it has taken so long for such a wonderful artist to achieve deserved public recognition - not that it's particularly unusual for an artist to achieve renown long after their death. To take one example, Vermeer was just one 17th century Dutch artist among many until his cause was taken up two hundred years later.

I was surprised by the enthusiastic response shown by critics to the exhibition, which I think bodes well for the continuing reassessment of 20th century British art, particularly figurative painting of the 1920s and 1930s. I'm looking forward to the David Jones exhibition coming up at Pallant House in October, which promises to be filled with rarely-seen wonders.

The beautiful new book on his work as a watercolourist and printmaker, by Ariane Bankes and Paul Hills, makes for interesting comparison with the Ravilious catalogue, especially as Rav was a big fan of Jones and visited his London shows in the late 1920s.

It seems a long time since I walked into the exhibition rooms at Dulwich to see the paintings all lined up against the walls, still in their crates and boxes. For the previous eighteen months I had been moving thumbnail images of the pictures around a scale plan of the gallery, which was stuck with blutac all over the landing walls. Every now and again a picture would fall off, to be transported on the sole of someone's foot around the house, so that tiny planes and greenhouses would turn up in the most unlikely places. To see the pictures as large as life and all together was very moving.

I imagined that the hang would bring some kind of closure, but the opposite was true. Being able to look at so many watercolours up close I saw so much that I had missed; I wanted to rewrite the catalogue there and then, but I don't think the publishers would have let me. Then there were all the observations made by critics and visitors, which in many cases made me look at a picture afresh. More than ever I appreciate that anyone with an intelligent gaze can add to our understanding of an artist or their work.

Finally, it has been extraordinary to meet so many people through the exhibition: lenders, fellow writers, artists, enthusiasts. On one memorable occasion I stood in front of a painting with the son of a naval officer portrayed in the picture. More recently I had a letter from a woman whose mother is, in all likelihood, one of the staff shown in the underground control rooms - of which more anon...

** According to Dulwich Picture Gallery, over 85,000 people visited the Ravilious show, their highest every turn-out!